Odd Voice Out
So how does it feel to win a writing competition?
It’s amazing! ‘Breathe’ was written over a year before submission to OVO and had been rejected from previous publications. OVO was a ‘last chance’ attempt at submission before entirely scrapping the idea. To win first prize for a germ of an idea was overwhelming and really boosted my confidence in my writing ability.
One of the main reasons ‘Breathe’ captivated us so much was the depth of its world-building. How did your vision of this dark future come together?
During my own teenage years, dystopian stories were a massive part of YA literature (thanks to ‘The Hunger Games’ series). When writing ‘Breathe’ I was visualising Whittier, Alaska- the town that lives almost entirely as a community in a 14-story building as inspiration for the setting. ‘Breathe’ was almost entirely planned in my head and written in a couple of sittings. I wrote the parts I knew and the parts I couldn’t figure out or hadn’t considered were left for interpretation by readers – in a short story with a word limit, to spend too much time on world-building and explanation would detract from the actual story.
Are there any particular dystopian authors, YA or otherwise, who you took inspiration from in the writing of this story?
Ben Elton’s ‘Blind Faith’ was my first introduction to dystopian novels when I was 12. His world was filled with so many parallels to current media saturation, consumerism, and technology that it felt very “real” as to looking at how society would be on track to end up there. I wanted to reflect that in my writing as a “warning” to readers about the current climate in society.
Your depiction of a corrupt health system and lack of adequate care for people in poverty carries a lot of real-world resonance. What made you want to tackle this very pressing issue?
As mentioned above – we all know the current state of UK healthcare and the pressure the NHS is under is not sustainable. The idea of “birth debt” came from reading about the health care system in the USA. Just giving birth in a hospital there incurs thousands of dollars of debt. As with all dystopian stories, ‘Breathe’ comes with the underlying warning of “this could be reality if change does not happen fast”.
Your narrator Bella is in love with Em, a girl with cystic fibrosis, while Bella herself suffers with anxiety. How did you handle the contrast of these two conditions with the common theme of breathing difficulties?
I previously suffered debilitating panic attacks, which went largely ignored by those around me. There’s stigma surrounding both mental and physical health (especially with “invisible illnesses”) so that was in my mind when writing. I think mostly I just like the juxtaposition and parallels!
It struck me that Bella’s feelings for Em would resonate not only with queer readers but asexual readers too. The lack of labels is refreshing. What do you hope readers take away from their relationship?
Because “Breathe” is set in the future, it made sense to me that LGBT+ culture, language, and societal view would be completely different from how it is now. I deliberately didn’t touch on that explanation and left it for readers to infer if Bella keeping her feelings secret came from a fear of homophobia or simply fear of rejection. The “confession” of feelings is overshadowed by the life or death choices and Em’s feelings (either reciprocated or not) are not touched upon. I didn’t consider this from an asexual readers point of view when writing but I like that it was picked up on! I think the important thing to take away that I was trying to get across, is that this story was never about the romance. For Bella, retaining her friendship was far more important than having feelings reciprocated and I hope this demonstrates the importance of platonic relationships and how they hold just as much value as romantic ones.
What advice would you give to other writers looking to intermingle important current issues with speculative and/or fantasy genres?
Honestly, I don’t consider myself a reader of fantasy genres! I have a sociological background which is definitely reflected in everything I write. I’d advise to pay attention to the cultures and society around you. Make observations, question social norms, think critically. Most importantly, when deciding to interject certain topics into your writing, consider using personal accounts and anecdotal stories as research. This can be a good way to bring characters to life and make writing more realistic – even in a fantasy setting.
What’s your next creative project?
My main project at the moment is a full-length poetry book focused on teenage years with themes of sexism, mental health, and the pressure current teens are under. I’m aiming to have a final draft by November of this year. I do have ideas for another couple of horror themed YA stories (think zombies and paranormal experiences) but I’m waiting for the right time to work on them. My full-time job as a support worker takes up a huge amount of my time but writing is a hugely cathartic experience for me which I enjoy a lot.